Shortly after Isabelita “Lita” Marcelo Abele became president and chief executive of U.S. Lumber Inc., taking over her husband’s role, most of the employees quit.
“They don’t want the boss’s wife here,” said Abele, 65. U.S. Lumber, based in Woodbury Heights, employs 12 and supplies lumber to sub-contractors.
In the mid-1980s, Abele joined the business owned by her husband, Merrill “Les” Abele. In 1989 or 1990, she said, she spun off a lumber brokering business, which she led. “I was going after the woman and minority business and some of the construction companies that needed that were also his customers,” said Abele, who came to the U.S. from the Philippines.
Later, they closed his business. “His business started to fail because of the economy at that time. Then, also, he wants to retire,” she said during our Executive Q&A interview published in the business section of Sunday’s Philadelphia Inquirer.
Abele’s husband is nearly 15 years older than she is.
“He had a meeting saying, `Lita now runs the business. I don’t have anything to do with it,'” Abele said.
“He said that to the employees.’ So, what I did is I called the employees one-by-one and first I said, `Hello again’ and things like that. I said, `We have to work together and we have to be a team.’ They act like it’s the end of the world.
So, I call them one-by-one, in person, in my office. I called them one-by-one and said, `Okay, we are going to evaluate your responsibilities. You are not going to be the sales manager anymore. You are not going to be general manager anymore. You will be a salesman, and this is what I would like you to do. You go out on the road. You sell our product. This is the form. I want you to fill out this form: the date, the time, where you go and to whom you talked to, and the company and the phone number.’ He looked at me like he wanted to choke me.
So, one day or two days later, they don’t like it. They said they cannot take it. Also, I cut down the salary, because the sales manager — the salary is very high. That is the title with the salary, but he is is not bringing in enough to cover that salary. He left. One-by-one, they left. Now, the bookkeeper and the receptionist. The bookkeeper doesn’t want to work too, because I want to know everything going on and I want meetings. They never had a meeting. I started with what I [had] seen on television about being chief executive. I tried to apply it, because I’ve never been president and CEO. Then, okay, all are done.
Every employee left?
Every employee left.
All the people that knew the business?
And all the customer contacts?
Yeah, they know, but I become on top of it. I’ve become all of it. And, because this is what they told me. They told me, `I can never run a business. U.S. Lumber can never be successful.’
Who told you that? The people as they were leaving?
And, what did you say?
Okay. One day you will know who is Lita Abele and you will know who is U.S. Lumber. It’s a challenge to me. I think I prove it after they left and I take over for all of it.
So, you now don’t have a bookkeeper. You don’t have a receptionist. You don’t have a sales force. You have one employee, you.
Yes, and my children. They’ll help me.
How old were they then?
Romilett is in college, or maybe 16 or 17.
Where was Merrill in all of this?
Merrill was here still. We worked together. Merrill and I become a team. This is my expertise. This is his expertise. Because at that particular time he’s semi-retired. So, the two of us go together out on the road. He will drive. I will go to the site. I will go to the offices, introduce myself, introduce the product. If there’s a question that I don’t know the answer, I’m going to say, `Hold on, I have a salesman with me. I introduce Merrill as a salesman. I don’t introduce, `This is my husband.’ I say, `This is Les, our salesman.’ His name is Merrill Les Abele. So, he goes by Les, the middle.
At that particular time, when I come back at night, I do it, all the paperwork, everything. That’s when I work until 12:00 at night and we don’t have computer, so everything will be added by calculator. With one penny, I will not let go. I clean the employees’ toilet.
You said all the employees left. But did any remain?
Sales left. The driver, the yard foreman. They did not leave. Without the driver, I cannot deliver.
And, you didn’t change the driver’s job or cut his salary?
And, you didn’t change the yard foreman’s job or cut his salary?
Did you actually want the sales people to leave?
No, not exactly.
Sure looks that way. Think about it. You came in. You cut their pay.
I cut the pay only of the employee that’s getting high, high salary.
I understand that. From your point of view it makes a lot of sense. But, from the point of view of the person sitting on the other side of the desk, he’s thinking, `This woman is cutting my salary and she doesn’t know what she’s doing. She’s the boss’s wife.’
That’s what they think, that I don’t know anything, but they don’t know that I do know.
Looking back on it, do you think that you handled it well?
Yes, and you know why?
After months, they are all in the door and want to come back.
Did you let them back?
NEXT: How Lita Abele learned to run a lumber company.